Helm Watch

On the MIR the trainees have the possibility to take part in the helm watches. This means that they can take over the steering of the vessel for 1/2 hour at day plus 1/2 hour at night. Those who volunteer for this will steer all alone but under supervision of the watch officer and if necessary a person who is experienced in steering. This can be an A.B. or a cadet or sometimes even another trainee who has been on MIR before and has proven to be a good helmsman.

If you want to take over a helm watch your eye vision needs to be okay. It is no problem if you are wearing glasses, but either with or without glasses you should be able to read the compass from a distance of 1 metre as most of the time you will be steering compass courses.

If you volunteer for helming you will be given a time during which you will take the helm. This will be the same time every day and every night (for example from 06.30 to 07.00 and 18.30 to 19.00 hours daily). The watch officer will be informed that you come and will await you. If you cannot come to your helm watch - maybe because you are seasick - it is necessary to inform the watch officer that you will not appear so that he finds a cadet who will substitute you.

For your own experience and to receive a true effect of learning how to steer a ship it is advisable to do the helming during your entire voyage. Every day you will find a different situation, different wind, different sea state so that no watch is like the other. However, if you come to the helm for 5 or 6 days after each other you will get a real good impression of the job of the helmsman.

If it is time for your helm watch:

So now let's see what you have to do at the helm:

Steering of Compass Courses

The most of the time - and especially when you are a beginner - you will steer compass courses. This means that the watch officer will tell you a compass course. He will do this in English. This will sound like: "The course is two-four-seven!" This information means that you are meant to keep the ship on the course 247° according to the steering compass in front of you.
Your steering compass is a repeater of the ship's gyro compass. It has 2 scales. The outer circle shows the degrees in steps of 1 degrees with every 10 degrees marked. The inner circle gives you 10th of a degree to allow you precise steering. Other than on yachts on the MIR we steer precisely to 1°. If you receive a course of 247° this means 247° and not 245° or 250°. You should try to steer as precise as possible. This is no big problem as the MIR has got a hydraulic steering gear.

Steering a given Rudder Angle

If a change of course is necessary you will now receive commands to steer a certain rudder angle. For this you have a rudder angle indicator in front of you. The commands used in this can be seen below in the Standard Wheel Orders.

Steering a given Angle to the Wind

Sometimes we are steering a certain angle to the wind. In front of you is a wind indicator. It shows you the angle and speed of the apparent wind. You will now receive a command to steer for example 55-60° by the wind. In this case the course is not important for you any more. There is no need to look at the compass for you, but only to the wind indicator. You follow the wind with your steering to maintain the perfect angle to the wind for the trim of sails.

Steering after Wind and Sails

If you proof to be a really talented helmsman you might receive the order to steer after wind and sails. In this case your job is to steer so that the sails all stand perfectly. It is the way to steer the vessel in hard-by-the-wind courses when you are beating against the wind. The steering sail is the highest set sail on the main mast (e.g. the main royal sail). If it's windward leech is slightly playing you have the minimum angle towards the wind. You now can steer to windward if the wind increases and must bear off if it decreases. You must follow every change of direction and can try to find the perfect point. However, you must steer very carefully and should not turn the wheel more than 1/4 turn to either side as too much rudder angle and too much changing will reduce the speed of the vessel. It is difficult to describe this in words, but maybe we will sail together one day and I will show you what I mean...

Helming during a Sail Manoeuvre

During that you will receive the same commands as during a change of course. Only here it is absolutely important to fulfil them as quickly as possible and as precise as possible. If you act too slowly you might stop the vessel in the tack what might mean that the tack will fail. The crew (and the master) will not be delighted if they have to brace back all yards and do the tack again because of you...

Working with the Pilot

In narrow waters, during approaches or when working with the pilot precision helming is necessary. That means we steer strictly to the given course with no more than 0,5° deviation to either side. We normally do this with the tiller steering inside the wheel house. The more precisely you keep the course the better. To do this there are 5 secrets to know:

Steering after Landmarks

If land is in sight, on rivers or fairways it is possible to steer after landmarks such as prominent buildings, buoys, cliff edges, lighthouses, leading lights, etc. If working with the pilot it can happen that he orders you not a compass course but to keep course on such a landmark. You then repeat the command as he gave it to you and do not look on the compass, but try to keep the given landmark closely starboard of the fore mast. It takes some experience, but it can be easier to steer this way as one sees a beginning swing of the ship earlier than on the compass.

Steering after a Star

This is not only a romantic phrase but a working method to keep a ship on course while out on the ocean where the compass sometimes swings around wildly. In a starry night it happens that one sees a prominent star near the mast or another well visible part of the rigging. If this matches the course ordered you can for a while take your eyes from the compass and watch out that the star remains in the same position relative to the rigging. This works extremely well with Polaris (Northern Star) which remains very close to the true north direction all night. But be careful, some stars move rapidly during the night. So it is necessary to cross-check the maintained course with the compass in regular intervals.

Standard Wheel Orders

this page was last updated 10/07